Ten or twelve years ago, we studied photos of a trek in Iceland, colors of the rhyolite lavascape with rising steam and small trekkers moving through this otherworldly land staring back at us. That was the beginning of our growing fascination with Iceland; it just took us awhile getting around to making the journey. After exhaustive planning (all by Marla), an easy seven hour flight to Reykjavik, and half a dozen bus rides, we were dropped off by the bus equivalent of a monster truck at Landmannalugar, the start of the infamous Laugevegur trek; the landscape draped with thick clouds, land dotted with colorful tents at this launching, and finishing point. As we set up our green Nemo tent, others were gathering giant rocks to stabilize their tent setup, standard practice to prep for an Icelandic storm. Later on in the trip, we would see the logic of the gathering of boulders to hold down a 5 pound nylon structure with thin aluminum beams. Soaking in the Landmannalaugar hot springs, a cool stream fed by a scalding geothermal spring, seeking that perfect balance of hot and cold, yin and yang, suddenly immersed in this alien landscape, all the little travel details drifting away, we would be on the Laugevegur trek in the morning.
Moving through the lava field en-route to Hrafntinnusker, a steady wind blowing sideways rain, we followed the well-cairned route non-stop to the hut/camp, draped in pewter clouds.
Camp one at Hrafntinnusker is on a mountaintop, but Laugevegur didn’t reveal her beauty right away.The camp rings of obsidian stone help buffer high winds that are common in the Icelandic Highlands.
Marla crosses a small stream on day two, a trek from Hraftinnuskercamp to Alfvatn. The stubborn cloud ceiling began to lift.
By day three on the Laugevegur Trek, we’d found a rhythm, a pair of trekkers part of the daily pulse on the popular trek. A practiced routine of home-prepared backpacking meals, setting up camp, sleeping off jet lag, and moving nomadically, a dot on the map both daily goal and compass as excitement built for surprises that await. Everything is new. We had read about the canyon near Emstrur camp when a fellow trekker told us how cool it is, worth the walk over there. With camp set up after a 12 mile day, trekkers piling in to the crossroads camp, we took our evening walk over to “M” Canyon, Icelandic names are just too long for more than the first letter. M, and its rich colors blew our minds.
We would finish the Laugevegur trek at Porsmork the next day, lounging on soft grass, gorging on potato chips from the little camp store, the trek a blur. Ahead, two weeks with no set agenda, a few more bus trips, Reykjavik, a rental car, driving the 800 mile highway one that encircles the country, a couple more backpacking trips…
Marla descends Asbyrgi Cliffs on a short via ferrata section with fixed rope, stairs and steps. We had trekked from Dettifoss to Asbyrgi along the River Fjollum, this descent adding spice to the finish.
There comes a point on each journey that gives pause, maybe a moment to better understand how some of the pieces fit together, our place in the world, perhaps epiphanic. Crossing Snaefellsjokull National Park on a rutted, lava rock studded road led to the edge of the namesake icecap, moraine fingers advancing where ice was not long ago. We knew the numbers, the icecap shrunk from 12 square kilometers to 9 in a decade; but seeing is something altogether different, an icecap so significant that the park has jokull (glacier) in the name as Icelanders wonder if they’ll still call it Snaefellsjokull when the ice is gone. We changed our plans when Marla said “we have to go up there”. I agreed and we climbed steadily, seeking the highest patch of lava moraine next to the ice, inspecting a crevasse. Studying the ice in silence while watching a snow machine carrying tourists climb slowly up the glacier, we looked into the face of anthropogenic climate change – not always easy to see because the story is written in vanishing ice.
Clean, green, stunningly beautiful Iceland is at once everything familiar and unknown. Iceland’s not particularly hard to get to, the flavor of the month (for tourism) nowadays as one bus driver described it, yet you can still get off the beaten path. It’s expensive by any measure, but why not? Iceland is a rock between the Greenland and North Atlantic Seas with a very short season for tourism, and growing vegetables for that matter. Soaking in the Blue Lagoon, one of the attendants from the U.S. told us “Iceland never really leaves you. You’ll get home and won’t be able to stop thinking of Iceland. You’ll come back, buy a home, and spend at least part of the year here in Iceland.” We started planning the next trip to Iceland before we left for home.
The Yampa River curves right against a towering canyon wall, illuminated at sunrise. Mathers Hole Camp.
Wild River. What comes to mind? It’s a trick question because there aren’t many wild rivers. The Yampa River, which begins as a trickle from melting snow high in Colorado’s Flat Tops Wilderness is the only remaining wild river in the Colorado River watershed. The Yampa flows freely to the Green River, a major tributary of the Colorado River, so the Yampa has a big role if we’re ever to reach some measure of stream flow sustainability in a watershed that runs from Wyoming’s Wind River Range to the Gulf of California – it doesn’t make it that far today. Colorado’s thirsty Front Range cities that surround Denver are calling for transmountain diversions from the Colorado River watershed – importing 195,000 acre feet for growing cities and 260,000 acre feet for irrigation. I wonder, does irrigation include growing Kentucky Blue Grass to be installed and watered forever? An acre foot is as it sounds, one acre that is one foot deep. Drought is the new normal, rivers are over allocated, people are flooding in, and there’s this one wild river in northwest Colorado. Logically we must have the courage to let the Yampa run free. Continue reading “Wild River – The Yampa”→
Bison cow with spring calf, Lamar Valley, Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming
As a little kid on my first trip to Yellowstone, my mom denied my sister and me the chance to feed the bears, which made my parents the worst parents in the world. After all, everyone else was doing it. Yep, people were reaching out of their car windows to feed full grown grizzly and black bears comically standing on hind legs for a treat. This stupid human behavior that habituated apex predators was sanctioned by the Park Service, cheap entertainment for those of us who drove all of those hot miles. Wild animals for our amusement. Of course, I’m pretty happy now to have both hands and thankful to my mom for making that choice not to feed the bears for us. Later, realizing bear dumps and hand feeding were getting bears in trouble and causing all sorts of problems, the activity was stopped and it took awhile for bears to learn how to find their own food again. Flash forward 50 years and record mobs are descending on Yellowstone, taking bison selfies, walking on fragile, sacred hot springs, putting a bison calf in a car because “it was cold” or some such nonsense. I’ve witnessed plenty and would need a very good reason to visit Yellowstone in peak season, unless it was to head straight into the backcountry. See a bear, shout BEAR! and the chase is on, a horde inching closer and closer for THE shot with a phone or tablet. The thing that is supposed to differentiate humans from primates is the ability to reason; we can make choices rather than simply react without regard for the animal or others. Last year, more people were killed by bison than bears. Why? Stupidity. The literature tells us they’re dangerous, and certainly one ton animals are large, and they can run 40 miles per hour, with horns. So how fast could they close on you from 10 yards? We only have two jobs while in Yellowstone – witness and be aware – then let the joy wash over us. The bison selfie comes with a choice. Study the animal, then choose to make the best image you can from a distance. Shoot a short video and share it when you get home. Those guys that stuck a bison calf in their minivan, however well-intentioned, are stupid people. Had mom been nearby, she would have rammed and likely totaled their van, and it wouldn’t be her fault… Learn about the animal ahead of time, observe that beautiful red calf and marvel at how different they look from adults. Look around to see where the mom is – give them some time and space. Bison have been on this landscape, birthing red calves for thousands of years. Animals do die of course, then something eats them, nothing goes to waste, and the biomass is nourished. I wish I could offer advice for the guys who walked out on Grand Prismatic hot spring, but I can’t because they knew better. Ban those bastards from the park, from all parks; we don’t want to see your permanent footprints or you myopic sons of bitches in the spring. Was this sacred natural place not amazing enough for you? While hiking, I roughly estimate that 25% of hikers carry bear spray. A typical family of four that will spend $150.00 on dinner won’t pony up $50.00 for bear spray. So, who leads the hike? Or rather, who can you do without if you run into a grizzly sow with cubs? Buy the bear spray and give it to a ranger when you leave, they’ll find a use for it. Hell, you may even save a grizzly from an untimely death. The Yellowstone experience is so much more grand when we bear witness and soak it all in, find a rhythm and leave our baggage behind. If you’re going, read the new National Geographic dedicated to Yellowstone cover to cover. It’s that good, and informative. All Americans are stakeholders, we own a deed to these lands and we’re a part of this ongoing experiment. That rectangle way up in northwest Wyoming is actually the center of an ecosystem that looks more like an ink blot on a map, a complex web of life that includes us, where every living thing is connected and all of the animals that belong here, are here. Natural processes play out for eons and each of our impacts are multiplied by the millions of others who come here to be inspired. Leave things as they are, and tell folks back home about this amazing ecosystem, pay it forward. End of rant. “Here is your country. Cherish these natural wonders, cherish the natural resources, cherish the history and romance as a sacred heritage, for your children and your children’s children. Do not let selfish men or greedy interests skin your country of its beauty, its riches or its romance.”
― Theodore Roosevelt
I had the map for about ten years, a dream trip into a network on canyons in Utah’s Cedar Mesa, south of Blanding, Utah with the highest concentration of ancient Native American ruins anywhere. A gathering of adventuresome hiking pals took us to Cedar Mesa and Grand Gulch for a backpacking trip unlike any other. From ~ 12,000 BC to 1,260 AD, the Ancient Ones thrived in southern Utah’s canyonlands, leaving behind magnificent ruins, stories written on canyon walls in ancient hand, pieces of life in a harsh land, all wrapped in mystery. Long thought to have simply vanished, these Ancient Puebloans left the arid canyons in the 13th century to build a new life throughout the four corners region – these Natives of the southwest are still here. For those of us fortunate to visit, a rare glimpse into life before white Europeans awaits. Continue reading “Walking Through Time”→
Strip of sagebrush in a sea of wheat, backed by Mount Adams. Near Richland, Washington.
Well into a ten day tour of eastern Washington with Audubon Washington, ED Gail Gatton and I set out at sunrise for agricultural lands, in search of a story-telling image. We climbed up a small rise on Badger Canyon road to a flat-topped plateau and into a sea of wheat. Gravel roads divide sections outfitted with center pivot sprinklers spraying water irrigated from the Columbia on wheat – much of it destined for China. I wanted to make an image of sagebrush in the ag lands, but could find none and our mission grew in futility. Then around a bend, a patch of sagebrush in a draw too steep to plow lay between wheat fields, with Mount Adams watching over this little piece of what once was all wild sagebrush. From here, a meadowlark sang a sweet melody – maybe there’s enough sage here for a meadowlark family. The trip was a combination of everything you could pack into conservation outreach – Greater Sage-grouse watching with Audubon supporters, planning for an upcoming songbird study, photography, presentations, all in eight towns over ten days. Continue reading “Searching For The Sage”→
Elk Mountains Aerial View – from a commercial flight from Denver to LA
Thanks to my friend Todd Caudle, this is too cool not to share. I love studying the land from the air and the flight from Denver to LA is such a rare treat – Front range, Swatch Range, Elk Mountains, Colorado Plateau, Monument Valley, Grand Canyon…all in a couple of hours western tour. So, I sent Todd this photo, converted to black and white because of the overwhelming blue from so high in the sky, and asked if he could help me identify the main peaks. I knew Todd would work his annotated magic, and so this photo is much more meaningful. To see the hallowed ground of the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness that we’ve trekked a week at a time, the high passes, towering peaks, deep valleys – all condensed into a rectangular frame is pure magic. All witnessed through a tiny window.
Sandhill cranes wade in shallow water before taking flight from roost. Bosque Del Apache NWR, New Mexico
refuge |ˈrefˌyo͞oj, -ˌyo͞oZH|
a condition of being safe or sheltered from pursuit, danger, or trouble
Bosque Del Apache national Wildlife Refuge is known as one of our top birding locations for the thousands of sandhill cranes, ducks, snow geese and other waterfowl that winter here. The Rio Grande flows through it, riparian refuge in a parched landscape on the northern edge of the Chihuahuan Desert. Long before it was designated by Congress, the Rio Grande ran wild, spilling over its banks during the summer monsoon, creating marshes and tall grasses that were refuge for migrating waterfowl. Today, the river is controlled and developed to its banks for much of its length, so we have to help the birds by recreating the flooded marshes that give waterfowl a place to roost and protection from predators. I remember my first morning standing on the observation deck that overlooks the wetlands; it was about 8 degrees fahrenheit with a slight breeze and folks were pouring in to the refuge for a spot on the observation deck and lining the banks, whispering in hushed, excited tones. It was freezing cold and exhilarating and I was completely unprepared for the explosion of tens of thousands of snow geese against a backdrop of a brilliant orange and blue sunrise. Each time I came back I was stunned, somehow not completely ready. Continue reading “Bosque and Monte – Twin Refuges”→
Rutting Mule Deer Buck, Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge, Colorado
I’ve become obsessed with this occupation of Malheur National Wildlife Refuge near Burns, Oregon. Sagebrush Rebel terrorists decided to take a stand at a remote wildlife refuge to protest ranchers sent to prison for covering up mule deer poaching with arson, and are somehow trying to take back an 1800’s way of life that entitles them to use our western lands however they wish for free, because dammit, the Federal government has overreached and there is too much government, and they say this isn’t terrorism, but they’re heavily armed and willing to die. Or some such myopic nonsense. They have signs protesting the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), even though the land they’re occupying is managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS). American flags are draped all over the refuge, even though they’re protesting the Federal government. None of what they’re doing is constitutionally defensible or upheld in any way by the Supreme Court. It is simply domestic terrorism and these yahoos playing army give sustainable ranching a bad name.
The National Wildlife Refuge System is made up of over 500 refuges that offer unique and rare opportunities to view wildlife, recreate, and celebrate our natural heritage. The refuge system is part of a public lands network managed by the USFWS, the BLM, The US Forest Service, and the National Park Service. Roughly half of the land in the American West is public, millions of acres that every American owns the same deed of ownership to. As I watch this news cycle unfold, I see politicians posture to defend this sagebrush rebel idea that folks are somehow being persecuted by a system that won’t allow them to graze cattle, drill, and mine wherever they want. Here’s an idea: choose a different way of life. After prison.
Our public lands system is one of the best ideas we’ve ever had and is rare in the world. It’s too easy, simple-minded, and lazy to marginalize a place because of its remoteness – the very quality that makes it extraordinary. I’ve not been to Malheur, but most of my work is on public lands that won’t grace glossy calendars, places without the aura of our celebrated national parks. Places like Rocky Mountain Arsenal NWR, Siskadee NWR, Jack Morrow Hills, Adobe Town, Arapaho NWR, Cochetopa SWA, and so many other largely unknown lands in the west are refuge for the wildlife that we celebrate – it’s where we go for inspiration and solitude, to get lost in the grunt of rut, melody of meadowlark, call of the eagle, crane, and loon. This sagebrush rebellion won’t likely go away anytime soon; hell, Ronald Reagan called himself a sagebrush rebel; but this thuggery aimed at stealing our natural inheritance, robbing us of a chance to be inspired will not stand. We carry cameras and binoculars, support western communities, and we like our public lands just fine. Large unbroken expanses of western lands are the present and the future; our defense against climate change, extinction, and ignorance.
Hiking with my friend/web guru/mountain photographer Jack Brauer, Jack asks “what do you think it is that makes aspens so brilliant in fall?” Jack has studied aspens as much as anyone I know, so I figured his query was rhetorical. But we launched into a discussion about leaves, mountain light, and complimentary colors that lasted about a half mile, everything leading to the same place – translucence holds light while letting it pass through, giving aspens a luminescence unlike anything else in our part of the natural world. Autumn is an ephemeral miracle. While we’re still gobbling up the last of Palisade peaches, aspen trees are changing to gold, orange, and deep red. Some aspen colonies (aspens are a colonial species sprouting from the same source) are withering with fungus, their leaves dropping early by our human calendar, adding a smell of pungent loam to forest walks. Songbirds are gone and we await the arrival of winter raptors and diving ducks. I look up each day, hoping for a glimpse of sandhill cranes headed south on a migration course, riding thermals to their southern home at Bosque Del Apache NWR in New Mexico. It’s a remarkable time of year alright; so predictable, yet each day holds a promise to awaken our senses, all of them. Continue reading “Autumn Coming On”→
Greater Sage-grouse Strut, Sublette County, Wyoming
By now, nearly every one if us has heard something about Greater Sage-grouse and the pending listing decision for protection under the Endangered Species Act. The listing decision is scheduled for September 30 and while we’ve been waiting to find out what the US Fish and Wildlife Service will do, some in Congress have been seeking ways to undermine the process. Senator Cory Gardner of Colorado has added a rider to the Senate Appropriations Bill that would essentially stall any meaningful conservation actions on behalf of Greater Sage-grouse for six years. If that were to happen, we would lose all of the progress, the goodwill, the great collaboration that’s been steadily increasing in the buildup to a listing decision. The Endangered Species Act is under attack, that’s been going on for years. The Sage-grouse decision is bigger than anything we’ve seen before, with eleven states and 165 million acres of Sage-grouse habitat staked out as Priority Areas For Conservation (PAC). If you’ve read this blog before, or followed the Sage Spirit project, you know that grouse are imperiled because of habitat fragmentation, loss, and the collapse of an ecosystem that impacts 350 species. Failure to take serious actions on behalf of Greater Sage-grouse is an ecosystem failure. There is only one sagebrush sea. What can we do? Write a letter, a real letter to your senators and tell them that Greater Sage-grouse are in trouble and don’t belong in an appropriations bill. Let science determine the next steps. Make sure to tell your senator what the American West means to you – the personal aspect is so important. Audubon has made it easy for you with a letter that you can e-sign, but it’s even better if you use some of the language and add your personal connection. I’ve sent letters to Senators Cory Gardner and Michael Bennet (CO) and it feels great. Thanks for writing, the Audubon letter follows: Continue reading “Using Our Voice, For Greater Sage-grouse”→